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Fatal helo crash prompts Army to buy $4.6M radar sensor system for JBLM

The Army is spending $4.6 million to buy a low-altitude aircraft surveillance system that would improve safety in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord training areas where four helicopter pilots were killed in a December 2011 collision.

The system, to be built by Saab Defense and Security, would enable Lewis-McChord air traffic controllers to monitor helicopters that fly below 500 feet.

Currently, Lewis-McChord radar systems do not see aircraft at low altitudes, according to Army investigations into the fatal 2011 accident. Difficult terrain in the aviation training areas obstructs the radar.

To compensate, Lewis-McChord limits the number of aircraft that can be in any single training area and pilots are expected to communicate frequently with air traffic control and each other.

The Army hired Saab to build a Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system, which would place sensors around the training areas to give air traffic control at Gray Army Airfield a more complete picture of helicopters in flight.

The system should increase oversight of the training areas, and it could enable the Army to carry out more complex aviation exercises at Lewis-McChord. Saab announced the contract this week, and the Army confirmed it.

“The Wide Area Multilateration system will have a positive impact on our training,” I Corps spokesman Col. Dave Johnson said. “It will improve our communications, enhance our safety, and increase the situational awareness of our aircrews and aviation operations.”

Saab has installed WAM systems at three other Defense Department installations, including the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in California and the home of Navy aviation, Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

A November Army report that makes an argument to install the Saab sensors connects the project to the Dec. 11, 2011, crash that claimed the lives of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Frank Buoniconti, Capt. Anne Montgomery, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Shan Joseph Satterfield and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lucas Daniel Sigfrid.

“JBLM is currently under flight restrictions instituted to mitigate flight safety hazards inherent in low-level flight. These flight restrictions are necessary to avoid aircraft accidents similar to the December 2011 mid-air collision,” the report says.

“Even with restrictions in place, every day unmonitored flight training operations continue at JBLM increases the likelihood of another fatal accident,” the report says.

Army investigations into the crash cite pilot error as the primary cause of the accident, though they point to the other factors that could have made a safer training environment, such as improving radar at low altitudes and clarifying procedures in Lewis-McChord’s flight regulations.

Buoniconti and Montgomery were flying in a training zone when Satterfield and Sigfrid moved into the area some time before 8 p.m. on the night of the accident. All four were experienced pilots qualified to be in the air that night.

It is not clear whether the two helicopters communicated with each other or what they heard from air traffic control about the other’s location.

Lewis-McChord has been growing its Army helicopters assets since it became the headquarters for the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade two years ago. The Army has about 140 helicopters at Lewis-McChord, up from 48 in 2005.

This year’s defense budget includes $146 million to build up facilities for the expanded aviation units.

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